Why do Babies Shake Their Heads

As a new parent, you watch your child’s every move. 

The baby days are filled with anticipation. Each moment might be your baby’s “first” something: smile, laugh, roll, or step. 

However, sometimes, anticipation turns into anxiety. When your baby does something you weren’t expecting or can’t explain, worry creeps into your mind. 

Why is she doing that? Is something wrong? 

One of the things that might give a parent some pause is when their baby starts shaking his head. 

If you have spotted your child doing this odd behavior, you are not alone. Most babies are head shakers at some point. But why do babies shake their heads?

Reasons Not To Worry

Let’s start off with the many reasons your baby may be shaking their head that aren’t cause for concern. 

Developing Motor Skills

Infants and babies grow rapidly in the first few months of life. In their early days, most babies do not have the strength to hold up their own heads. 

Movements will seem uncoordinated (because they are) and jerky due to the lack of motor control.

But by the end of the first month, you will find many babies can move (or shake) their heads from side to side, especially while lying down. 

Think of these movements as exercise. Your baby is making the same motion over and over to develop strength and control. Then they can move onto more complex movements. 

Nursing

Many mothers notice head shaking when they are nursing their babies. This often happens in the early days after birth, as the infant attempts to latch.

After a while, babies (and moms) get the hang of a quick, efficient latch, and the shaking might go away. 

If your baby continues to shake their head when nursing, it is most likely due to excitement. They’re hungry, and they know it’s time to eat! These small movements are a way for your baby to express their emotions since they don’t have words yet. 

Exploration

Babies learn very rapidly when they are young, and they are continually exploring the world around them. 

One of the most important discoveries a baby makes is that they have control over their body. 

When your baby shakes their head, they may be testing out the movement to see what happens. 

Imagine that your baby is asking himself: What happens if I shake my head this way? What about that way?

Through experimentation, your baby learns how to control their body movements and the cause and effect of their actions. 

Entertainment 

Another possible reason for head shaking is to provide entertainment to themselves and others. 

If your baby shakes his head, people might smile, laugh, or giggle. This will encourage them to do it again. And again. And again.

This mostly happens when they are imitating an adult or a big kid. 

Babies know when they are the center of attention. Often, they’ll find themselves in the middle of a room with lots of people watching the. In my family, we call it “Baby TV.”

baby playing on play mat

Playtime

As your baby gets older, they will have more tummy time as playtime. 

If you lay them down on a play mat, or in a room with lots of things to look at, your baby is likely to get excited and want to see many things at once. 

When they try to look around, their head will move rapidly, and they might begin to shake it from time to time as a way to look quickly. 

Self Soothing

If you shake your head (go ahead, try it!) for a few seconds, you’ll notice a slight dizzy feeling afterward.

Babies get this feeling too. However, unlike us, they actually tend to enjoy it a little bit and might use it as a method to self soothe.

Dizziness makes babies sleepy. When babies shake their heads, it may be that they are tired and attempting to relax and get to sleep quickly. 

Testing Movement

As babies get older and develop their motor skills, they begin to test out movement more deliberately. 

Around the age of 4-5 months, babies might start to rock their heads back and forth, especially during tummy time. This is often a precursor to the rocking motion they will do as they learn to crawl

They can do this for what seems like a long time, but as long as they do it for less than fifteen minutes at a time, there’s nothing to worry about. 

Head Banging

Believe it or not, this is actually on the “don’t worry” list. 

Lots of babies will bang their heads repeatedly when they are young. It’s a novel sensation that tends to cause dizziness, which they find pleasant. 

As long as they are banging their head on mostly soft surfaces and seem happy, it’s not a problem. In most cases, this behavior stops by the age of two. 

What to Watch For

Most babies are going to go through a head-shaking phase at some point. Alone, it’s not a reason to worry. However, there are a few behaviors you should keep an eye out for if your baby is shaking their head often, just in case. 

Lack of Interaction

Most babies feed off of attention and interaction. It’s how they learn and makes them happy. 

If your child shakes their head often and lacks interest in interacting with familiar people: parents, siblings, and other caregivers, it might indicate something else is up. 

Similarly, if your baby isn’t reacting typically to voices and sounds, that may be another sign.

Eye Movement

Babies learn to track movement and focus on objects within their first few days. 

Head shaking along with jerky eye movements or a lack of focus and tracking is a reason to pay attention to the behavior. 

Knots and Bald Spots

While headbanging and shaking is typical behavior for young babies, it shouldn’t lead to knots in their head or any bald spots. 

If you notice that your baby is frequently shaking their head, as well as the appearance of bald spots or knots, then that might be cause for concern.

baby in swaddle

Anxiety

Babies shake their heads in all different situations, but if you notice that your baby does it more often when they are upset or anxious, then that’s something to note. 

It’s also a good idea to assess whether your infant seems able to stop by themselves. If it is a repetitive behavior that continues until they are crying, then that’s another indicator that something might be wrong. 

Signs of Sickness

Babies might shake their heads because they don’t feel well. 

If the head movements are accompanied by chills, fever, lethargy, or tugging on their ears, then they might have picked up a little bug somewhere and are a bit under the weather. 

Developmental Milestones

Many parents watch the recommended developmental milestones like hawks, and it’s a good thing to monitor. 

A baby who shakes their head regularly and is also behind on meeting their milestones might have something else going on. 

Worrisome Causes

There are some reasons babies shake their heads that may require intervention. 

Myoclonic Seizures

A myoclonic seizure is characterized by brief, shock-like jerking of a muscle or muscle group. This can include the head and neck. It is often accompanied by a stiffening of limbs and jittery movements. 

These seizures can occur while a person is awake and able to think clearly. It can be a sign of epilepsy or other illnesses. 

Spasmus Nutans

This disorder most often affects babies from the age of 4 months to 1 year. 

It involves rapid, uncontrolled eye movements, along with head bobbing and occasionally holding the neck in an abnormal position. 

The cause is mostly unknown, and it usually goes away by itself after several months. 

Rhythmic Movement Disorder

If you notice your baby is shaking his head while sleeping, then rhythmic movement disorder might be the reason.

The disorder is characterized by a rhythmic movement of the head or limbs, head-banging, or body-rocking during sleep. 

There’s no known treatment for it, but it’s worth mentioning to your doctor all the same. 

What To Do

Even though most of the reasons for head-shaking are innocuous, the behavior itself can worry some parents. 

If you find yourself continuing to worry about your child’s head-shaking, then there are some actions you can take to either help stop the behavior or discover the reason it is happening. 

Ignore the Behavior

We know that babies feed off attention and reactions. If your child is constantly shaking their head, it may be because they like your response. 

Try to ignore this behavior as much as possible. The lack of reaction over time might encourage your child to move onto another action to get a response. 

Track It

If your baby shakes their head often, consider tracking when they do it and for how long. 

Keeping track of the shaking might show some patterns you didn’t initially spot. If your child is doing it before meals, it could be as a result of hunger. If the shaking lasts longer before bed, they might be doing it because they are tired. 

Alter the Environment

Sometimes a baby might be shaking their head in response to overstimulation or something else in their environment. 

If you notice that your infant always shakes their head in the same place, consider moving them to a new spot or looking around to see what might be causing them to shake.

Try Relaxing Techniques

It could be that your infant is shaking her head to release tension or anxiety. If this is the case, consider how you can help them soothe differently. 

Soft music, infant massage, and a special blanket or toy can all be tactics that will help your baby relax without the excessive movement. 

It’s Okay

Head-shaking is standard behavior for most infants and babies. 

There are many reasons that your child might engage in this behavior, and most of them aren’t worrisome. 

If you’re still concerned about your baby shaking her head, speak to your pediatrician about what to do next.

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